Earlier this year, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson remarked after his latest spectacular performance, “Not bad for a running back.”
In the eyes of some, however, he really is a running back. When he decides to run, that is.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan explained the difference between Jackson and other mobile quarterbacks during Shanahan’s midweek session with reporters, four days before the showdown between the 10-1 49ers and the 9-2 Ravens.
“He’s just different in that he’s a running back when he has the ball,” Shanahan said. “You know, the other two guys [Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray], they can make a lot of plays with their legs and stuff, but eventually, they are going to slide and things like that. This guy, he’s a running back out there, and a quarterback when he’s throwing, but he can run hard. You’ve got to bring him down. He can take the hits and he also can deliver them.”
That’s really the key difference. Unlike most quarterbacks who run, Jackson doesn’t slide and doesn’t get out of bounds and doesn’t seek to avoid contact when he runs. He just goes, in the same way a running back does.
“This isn’t just zone-read,” Shanahan said of the Baltimore offense. “This guy runs quarterback power, quarterback counter, all types of running back runs. It’s not just a race to the sideline. . . . You’ve got to be ready for anything. You’ve got to be ready for a wildcat offense, but the wildcat guy is still a quarterback too.”
So how can defenses catch up with what the Ravens are doing?
“I don’t think it necessarily is catching up,” Shanahan said. “Just like I didn’t think the defense ever caught up with the zone-read either. It’s not a trick play. It puts guys in a bind. It makes teams play 11-on-11 football. You’ve got to decide whether you want to play 11-on-11 or if you want to keep things the same and play 10-on-11. Most people, usually the quarterback, makes you pay if you play 10-on-11 when you have these type of quarterbacks. . . . Eventually, you can take stuff away. Then you’ve got to balance it out and see what holes that opened up because they take it away. I think it will be that way until the end of time. I mean, no one catches up with this stuff. It’s not a gimmick play, it’s a very sound way to run an offense and they are doing it at a very high level right now.”
For Jackson, the running also helps the passing.
“If you are that generational type of runner, then you’re going to get some better passes, too,” Shanahan said. “He’s been more than good at doing well in those situations. The way he’s thrown, he’s gotten it to the right guys, and if the looks aren’t there right away, he’s been unbelievable turning it into a run just like you see Russell do a number of times. He’s going to get better, as everyone does, with the reps and more looks that they have throwing the ball more in the league. But, when you are as special as he is running the ball, you can be a lot more patient with that because his looks aren’t going to be quite the same because of how much he scares everyone on every other play.”
That fear comes from his fearless ability to rack up significant yardage once he decides to run. As long as he can still avoid the kind of big hits that can cause injury, it will work. Against a physical defense like the 49ers, however, it could be hard for Jackson to avoid those big hits.